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Harvard Invents Structures That Instantly Transform Themselves

A new metamaterial could change the course of fields from robotics and space exploration to architecture and medicine.

If you’ve ever wondered how Transformers like Optimus Prime and Bumblebee would function on a cellular level, you may have your answer. A cross-disciplinary team at Harvard University just published a paper describing a new technique for creating transforming 3-D structures that can deform in dozens of ways—collapsing down to virtually nothing when not in use, but remaining incredibly strong when engaged.

To create this transformable “metamaterial,” the Harvard team looked to snapology, a type of modular origami that uses folded paper ribbons that are snapped together to form 3-D shapes. Some of the more ball-like structures in snapology, like the icosahedron, are remarkably rigid, while others, like the extruded cube, can easily collapse down into nothing.

The Harvard team started with a single shape based on these ideas: a cross-shaped polyhedron with 24 faces and 36 edges. They embedded this basic building block with pneumatic actuators—essentially, air-powered hinges—that operate to fold or unfold the block. By pumping pressurized air through the actuators, the team at Harvard demonstrated how to deform the polyhedron through any of its hinges. They can collapse down to practically nothing, as well as fold, twist, and bend.

Where things got really interesting, though, is when the researchers linked these cells together. By aggregating many of these shapes into a single structure, they found that they could create programmable, transformable objects of practically any size. What’s more, they say that these structural networks could use pretty much anything (including water, heat, solar power, and so on) as a power source—all they need are the actuators in the right places.

While self-transforming structures could be useful across many fields, one place this could be immediately useful is space. For example, a collapsed shelter could be sent to Mars in a small payload ahead of a manned space mission. Once there, the rays of the sun would allow it to unfold itself, ready for use when the first astronauts touch down. But there are equally interesting uses here on Earth. Imagine an enclosed stadium that, without electricity, could open up its roof when it was sunny, a wall that could open up into a window, or a disaster relief shelter that could deploy itself. Heck, you could potentially even use Harvard’s metamaterial to create an umbrella that automatically opens when it rains.

Another possible use case comes from medicine. Since this technology could be miniaturized down to the nanoscale, it’s a great fit for embedded medical devices. In fact, the team suggests that one possible use would be in surgical stents: Getting a stent installed could then become as easy as getting a shot.

Me, though? I’m really excited to see what this metamaterial could mean for roboticists. If we’re ever going to have 30-foot-tall robots that can transform down to the size of an 1980s-era boombox, this is the tech that’s going to get us there.

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.